Another lockout descends on the NHL, one which is pointless and unnecessary.
So, here we go again, NHL fans. Eight years after the last lockout began, and just over seven years after it ended, we’re facing yet another one.
Before proceeding, I want to apologize to my readers for getting your hopes up with previous articles suggesting there wouldn’t be a lockout this time.
I’m by nature an optimist. When concerns about another lockout were raised last fall, I dismissed the possibility, pointing to the unprecedented growth of the league’s revenue, visibility and success since the last lockout, plus the seeming lack of a contentious atmosphere between the NHL and NHLPA this time around, as proof we had nothing to fear.
I should’ve known better, and regret the error.
Those who raised concerns about another lockout, whom I dismissed as pessimistic, were proven right.
In retrospect, the writing was on the wall for this last fall, when NFL and NBA players agreed to reduce their respective shares of revenue to around a 50-50 split with the owners of their respective leagues. I should’ve known the NHL owners would push for a similar split.
Deep down, I suppose I knew they would, and would do so in such a way that it would push the players into fight mode, resulting in the mess we have now. I just hoped that, this time, common sense would prevail. Silly me!
I sympathize with the players, and have made no secret of it, just as I did with the last two lockouts, and understand where they’re coming from. After gaining huge concessions from the players last time, the team owners are back seeking more, offering up very little in return.
Essentially, the players are being asked to accept the lesser of two evils.
The first choice is accept a 50-50 split in revenue (yes, Donald Fehr, I know, you claim they already are close to that when you get into the deep number-crunching, but the owners aren’t interested in how you parse it. Nor, to be honest, are most fans), with little real improvement in revenue sharing (which would be funded by the players via increased percentages of escrow payments), plus perhaps contract term limits, changes to free agency eligibility, and the elimination of arbitration.
The second is the possibility of losing perhaps another full season and being forced to accept worse – perhaps much worse – if they capitulate again.
It is folly for the players to try to fight a labor war of attrition against the owners. If the last lockout taught us anything, it’s a unified group of NHL owners are willing and able to shut down for an entire season to get what they want.
It is unfair the players are being asked to give back more, but then again, the majority are millionaires now, and even the journeymen make over 500K per season, far more than the average middle class American and Canadian hockey fan in their best year.
Yes, taxes and cost of living eat up a big portion of that, but if they’re smart with their money, they’ll be set for life, and should certainly be able to comfortably ride out a lockout. It’s up to them to determine how to do it. Speaking from personal experience, financial planning costs nothing. Even just banking their salaries and living on the interest should suffice, especially for those earning millions each year.
While I realize “mo’ money means mo’ problems”, including a much richer lifestyle to maintain, hockey fans aren’t sympathetic when players offer up the “what would you do in our situation?” scenario. Most hockey fans are middle class, won’t earn as much in a lifetime as most players will in one season, so they can’t relate to millionaire players complaining about billionaire owners demanding pay cuts.
For most hockey fans, having a successful employer demanding 20 percent salary reductions would have serious consequences for their households. That cannot be said for rich athletes, regardless of the sport.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the players their wealth. I know what they’ve gone through to get it. Only an ignoramus would say, “Screw the NHL players, I’d play for free”, or “Hire replacement players, I’d pay to watch that”, and only a buffoon would suggest they should just take whatever the owners give them and be grateful they’ve got a job playing a kid’s game.
Most who say they’d play for free aren’t good enough to play bantam hockey, let alone at an elite level which would excite millions of fans. They’d have no choice but to play for free, because no one in their right mind would pay a dime to watch their crappy play. As for hiring minor leaguers as replacement players, no offense to them, but while their hockey skills are clearly superior to a fan’s, there’s a reason they’re not playing in the NHL, and it’s not the kind of hockey you’d pay NHL prices to see.
Those who believe the players shouldn’t stick up for their labor rights would sing a different tune if it were they in that situation. Hypocrisy isn’t just the domain of billionaire hockey team owners.
Since they were old enough to skate, NHL players willingly put themselves on a difficult path toward a dream many aspire toward but only a few achieve. It’s because of their skills, hard work and determination they’ve attained it. Yes, the league provides the venue, but it’s the players who make it marketable. And while their sport has been described as a “kid’s game”, the way they play it is nothing like that.
They risk serious injury every time they step onto the ice, through a gruelling training camp, pre-season, regular season and playoff grind lasting nearly ten months. Most are nursing injuries of various degrees, some serious enough to require off-season surgery. The off-season provides little time to relax and recuperate from injuries, as much of it is spent in preparation for the upcoming season. If they live in a hockey-mad city, they live a fishbowl existence, where private life is almost non-existent.
They’re what makes the NHL product worthwhile, and deserve to be well compensated.
It’s just that fans can’t relate when a pro athlete – playing in a league where the average salary last season was $2.4 million, and the median salary $1.1 million – complains about the owners demanding he takes a 17 percent pay cut.
Still, the owners have a lot of gall – after getting everything they wanted at the expense of a season from the players last time around, bragging about how much overall revenue and franchise values have increased and how their product has never been hotter – to just coldly pronounce they’re paying their prized employees too much and they must accept less.
It’s even worse when what they’re proposing thus far does little to help the consistently money-losing franchises, which truly need help if they’re to avoid relocation or contraction within the next decade or two.
Doubling down on reducing the players share of revenue, without a noticeably improved system of revenue-sharing (other than suggesting the players carry that burden) or something else to help those teams (significant reduction of the salary cap minimum, drags on salaries increasing with rising revenue) merely kicks the can down the road.
This isn’t the same situation as last time, when the owners were trying to implement a completely new system and crush the militant leadership of the NHLPA. This time, it should be merely making adjustments, addressing the problem areas which have arisen (struggling markets inability to keep pace with a rising cap, loopholes allowing legalized cap circumvention) by establishing a genuine partnership with the players – rather than the charade which currently exists – without risking damage to their brand and fan base.
Putting the blame upon the players for paying them too much, under an owner-friendly system which was heralded by their media sycophants as the cure-all for the league’s woes, just doesn’t wash. The majority of fans aren’t buying that snake oil now. Even most of the punditry, including some which were their cheerleaders last time, are against them.
Sure, the league survived the last time because it has “the greatest fans in the world”, but sooner or later, those fans will grow weary of these lockouts after every CBA. Indeed, I’ve noticed a weariness and bitterness among fans which wasn’t there last time, probably because last time, the fans bought the myth about rising salaries killing the game and the false promise of lower salaries equalling lower ticket prices.
Most fans understand now they were sold a bill of goods, which probably explains why the league hasn’t rolled out its “NHL CBA News” propaganda machine this time around.
The NHL risks testing the limits of its fans’ collective patience, as Major League Baseball did eighteen years ago, which could have an adverse effect upon attendance.
NHL hockey doesn’t enjoy the huge fan base in the United States as MLB does. Sure, those fans in traditional hockey markets in Canada and the United States will return following a lockout, but what about those in the non-traditional markets, which the league representatives promised would help make their teams better under this CBA?
Does the NHL really want to risk driving the stake once and for through the heart of the Phoenix franchise they fought four years to save? Does it really want to jeopardize the momentum the Florida Panthers built this year after making the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years? Does it want to blunt the slow-but-steady improvement in the Nashville Predators attendance? Does it want to dampen the excitement of Carolina Hurricanes fans looking forward to seeing Eric Staal playing alongside brother Jordan? Does it want to contribute to the steady deterioration of the Anaheim Ducks attendance? Does it want to risk stalling the rebuilding of the St. Louis Blues into a hockey power again?
For that matter, does it really want to dampen the excitement the Kings built up in the Los Angeles sports market following their first Stanley Cup championship?
A lockout of a couple of months might not do much damage, especially if this season is salvageable. Another season-killer, however, could prove lethal in the aforementioned markets.
Both sides express regret and sorry over another lockout, saying how no one wants hockey more than they do.
Of course, they have their millions and billions to help them pay their day-to-day living expenses throughout a lockout.
NHL fans will be inconvenienced by a lockout, but ultimately, it won’t affect their livelihood.
The true losers in a lockout are those who rely on the NHL to make a living.
I’m not talking about the players, coaches, general managers or league and PA negotiators. They won’t suffer financially.
It is the arena employees, the lower-paid, middle-class front office staffs of the respective teams and at NHL headquarters, the local businesses near NHL arenas, plus the bloggers and free lance writers, who face layoffs or reduced wages. They’re the ones who’ll truly suffer.
Oh sure, the league and the PA will sympathize, but as a platoon sergeant informed me years ago during a particularly difficult day in basic training, sympathy is found in the dictionary between “shit” and “syphilis”.
Those are working class people you’re hurting. They don’t want your sympathy, they want to keep making a living.
They’re the unfortunate ones caught in the midst of a pissing contest between millionaires and billionaires which was avoidable if both sides were truly willing to compromise and enter into a genuine partnership, rather than playing for keeps as they’ve always done.